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Exploring the world outside of the park
The Calico Ghost Towns

By Kevin Yee

The Calico Ghost Towns

If you've ever visited Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, then you've heard the name "Calico." It's the name given to the ghost town that forms the first themed area to the Cedar Fair park, and it works something like Disney's Main Street by providing a series of themed shops, restaurants, and spaces for shows or entertainment. More importantly, it provides a way to ease you into the themed entertainment that awaits you. It sets the stage, provides a mood, and works as a teaser - though there are those who think that the teaser at Knott's is better than the rest of the park, theme-wise at least.

Park historians are quick to point out that the entire theme park as such owes its existence to this ghost town. It goes like this: Walter Knott had a solid, if unremarkable, business farming berries. I know what you're thinking: Boysenberries, right? Nope. Knott didn't invent them. He got permission from Rudolph Boysen to sell and market the boysenberry -- a hybrid of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries -- at his roadside stand, still preserved near the stagecoach ride in the park. His stand soon became quite popular in the Depression-era farming community of Orange County.

The Calico Ghost Towns

The rest happened very organically, if you'll pardon the pun. Knott's wife, Cordelia, realized that the long lines for berries and jams represented a golden opportunity to sell her family-recipe fried chicken. Soon the chicken dinners were just as famous, and the Knotts attracted even longer lines. To keep the two bulging lines occupied, Walter hit upon an idea to create a miniature mining ghost town, where people could browse, be entertained, and perhaps be educated. Authentic buildings from Arizona were carted in, and the ghost town was added to for many years. Eventually, the ghost town also became an attraction in itself, and the Knott family finally created a fuller theme park, with a log flume ride and the Calico Mine Ride -- which provided Walt Disney with the inspiration for the Rainbow Ridge Mine Train, the precursor to Nature's Wonderland and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Notice that the Calico theme crept into the Knott's shopping center only when the ghost town expanded into an actual theme park. Before then, it had been just any ghost town, representative of the entire Old West. Now, it had an identity. Moreover, Calico was an actual historical place. It was, in fact, the closest authentic ghost town to the burgeoning Los Angeles. (The other nearby authentic ghost town is Bodie, not far from Yosemite.)

The Calico Ghost Towns

But wait -- Walter Knott's interests did not stop with just reproducing the town. No sir, he wanted to bring parts home to his new theme park, and anyway, he was simply taken with the romantic notion of the actual site ... so he went ahead and bought it. By "it," I mean the entire town. Calico was in disrepair anyway, long since abandoned as a living community, so Knott was buying a tapped out silver / borax mine, some ancient wooden shacks, and the remains of the defunct Calico and Odessa railroad. The Knott family owned the town between 1951 and 1966, during which time he took many of the original buildings down to Buena Park and constructed replicas at the original site in Calico.

Today, the town of Calico honors a Knott family tradition by being an attraction itself -- as we've seen, Walter Knott had a way of seeing his backstage projects evolve, seemingly inadvertently, into their own attractions. Located just off the I-15 freeway in the Barstow desert, the town of Calico is recognizable to the many Angelinos who drive to Las Vegas, courtesy of the large white Calico sign painted into the hill atop the town, and which is very visible from the interstate.

The Calico Ghost Towns

Admission to the town is nominal. (This information is on the official Calico web site.) Calico is open daily (except Christmas) and closes at dusk. What is there to do here? Plenty! Theme park enthusiasts of course rush to discover the Walter Knott touch, and they don't have far to look.

Standing off by itself is a house built with bottles. If you've been to Knott's Berry Farm, you might be tempted to think that Knott took the original and built a duplicate here at Calico ... or perhaps the exact reverse. However, neither is true. It turns out that both bottle houses are modern reproductions and no one is even certain that Calico ever had a bottle house. Other towns did, however. If you're wondering why bottles, remember that the western deserts offer very little in the way of trees. With lumber at a premium, poor miners cobbled living quarters together out of anything they could: bottles, mud, bricks, even hollowed-out dwellings in the hills themselves. The town of Calico is dotted with such cave-homes.

The Calico Ghost Towns

Even better than the bottle house, though, is a surprise sure to delight many who lament the loss of the Haunted Shack at Knott's under Cedar Fair's ownership: the exact same attraction, here called the Mystery Shack. For a small entrance fee, you are treated to the optical illusions that characterized the shack that used to stand at the end of Knott's Ghost Town. Water runs uphill, small children tower over their older siblings, chairs stand on two legs, and so on. Ever the showman, Knott had installed this attraction in both of his holdings: the Berry Farm ghost town, and the real ghost town of Calico.

The Calico Ghost Towns

While the connection to Walter Knott and theme parks might give you the incentive to visit Calico, by no means should you be constrained into searching only for further parallels. The town is amazing. Only one third of it is original (and restored), so most of it is modern reconstruction, but there is a lot to see and do here. A schoolhouse re-creation stands on the exact spot and foundation as the original. There's something a little creepy about peering into its windows, inviting one to both admire and pity the souls who attended tiny schools such as these.

The Calico Ghost Towns

Scattered about town are authentic pieces of equipment from the town's heyday in the 1880s, such as the horse-drawn fire engine, the hearse, a blacksmith's shop and anvil, and the public iron bathing tub in the Chinatown section of Calico. Allow yourself the pleasure of discovery, sink into the moment, and you find that your respect for the Old West miners has grown ten-fold.

There's a narrow-gauge railroad operating at one end of town, leading folks around the desert and past some actual mines, most of which are boarded over because they are completely unsafe for visitation. Children may enjoy the railroad more than adults, since there is little to look at during most of the ride.

The Calico Ghost Towns

Naturally, as this was a mining town, there's a mine you can visit. Maggie's Mine runs right into the famed Glory Hole (another term appropriated by Knott for use in his theme park attraction). Guests can take a walking tour into the mine, and it's well worth your time. If you prefer to stay above ground, there are hiking trails around the area as well, many leading past cliff dwellings and boarded up mines. The East Calico Hiking Trail offers a grand view of the town from above, with only minimal stairs and easy-to-moderate difficulty.

Calico is great for kids, not only because it educates, but also because the environment lends itself so well to self-discovery. Events are often planned around children, such as the Spring Festival early in the year, Calico Days in October, and even a Ghost Haunt around Halloween. Whenever Calico holds special events, expect to find public gunfights staged in the streets, burro runs, cook-offs, and other events geared specifically toward kids.

The Calico Ghost Towns

I heartily encourage anyone interested in the Old West to drop by Calico. It's less than two hours from Disneyland, but it's more than a world apart. While not quite a 100% authentic ghost town -- the reproductions see to that -- its commercialization is mercifully minimal, and a visit here transports you to a long-ago, far-away place in a way that theme parks will never be capable of. The faux cemetery at Knott's Berry Farm features one grave with a mechanical beating heart that visitors delight in stepping on. By contrast, the Calico cemetery is quite real. You won't find any tourist-like beating graves here, but you do find actual graves of actual people, whose deeds a century ago echo in today's world only dimly through the theme park lens.

Once you allow Calico to permeate your toughened theme-park hide, you can't help but respect the town and its former inhabitants. In a strange way, it provides an unspoken commentary on ourselves and our culture. And isn't that what outings and field trips like this should do?

The Calico Ghost Towns

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Calico, an old west mining adventure

Yermo, CA - During the late 1800's the town of Calico was busting with prospectors searching for its mineral riches. Silver was king here and the Calico Mining District became one of the richest in the state. Born in March 1881, Calico could boast boomtown status, producing $86 million in silver, $45 million in borax and a town population of 1,200 with 22 saloons, China Town and "red-light district."

Over 500 mines including the legendary Silver King, Oriental and Bismarck were the engines that drove Calico's great wealth between the years of 1881 and 1907. Like most towns of the early west, however, when the price of silver dropped from $1.31 an ounce to 63 cents during the mid 1890's, Calico became a ghost of its former self. The town officially died in 1907 with the end of borax mining in the district.

Today, Calico is one of the few remaining original mining towns of the western United States, thanks to the help of Mr. Walter Knott, founder of Knott's Berry Farm. Knott bought the town in 1951 and started restoring it from old photographs. Five of Calico's businesses are in original buildings like "Lil's" Saloon, and Lane's General Store. Others like the school house are exact replicas on existing foundations. In November 1966, Knott donated Calico to San Bernardino County.

Operating as a County regional park, Calico is alive and well. When you arrive in "Wall Street Canyon", you are greeted by a swirl of rock that extends upward nearly 100 feet. This serves as Calico's front door. The town's history is further explored by taking a walking tour with Calico's historian beginning at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. The 45 minute tour is free, and examines the life of miners, the famous 20 mule teams, and Calico's mail carrying dog, "Dorsey". Near the entrance to Maggie's Mine you board a narrow gauge railcar destined for silver workings to the north. By watching closely, you can spot small cave like openings in the mountain faces. They are front doors to miner's homes.

Gunfight stunt shows have become a part of Calico's everyday life. The more adventuresome can pan for real gold, watch water roll up hill in Calico's Mystery Shack or take a trip down into an actual mine where the air is thin, ceilings are low and evidence of labor intensive rock chipping is everywhere.

General merchandise of all types lines the walls of the town's shops. You can find an 1880's confectionary, a saloon where the sounds of honky tonk piano often fill the air, a full service restaurant, leather goods, pottery, basket, bottle, rock and dry goods stores. South of town is Calico's cemetery.

Calico became a registered California historic monument in 1973 during its Spring Festival, which is held on Mother's Day weekend each year. The ghost town often celebrates its early boomtown years with festivals.

If you like to camp, the narrow canyons below town offer full hookups, and are open 24 hours a day. Off highway vehicle camping with rest rooms and showers are also available. Admission to the townsite is included with camping and offers additional value to overnight stays. Six camping cabins and a large bunkhouse for groups with heating and air conditioning are also available for extended visits. Each Saturday night during the spring, summer, and fall, the towns historian can be found delivering a campground slide program.

Calico is open daily all year long except Christmas Day. Townsite hours are 8 a.m. to dusk with the shops and attractions open between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A nominal entrance fee is charged which includes the historic tour, music and gunfight entertainment. A brochure, town map, and event's schedule can be obtained by calling Calico toll free at 1-800-TO-CALICO.

Calico Ghost Town
P.O. Box 638
Yermo, CA. 92398
1-760-254-2122
1-800-TO-CALICO
Fax 1-760-254-2047

Group Information, Camp Ground Reservations, Comments:
calico@mscomm.com

Text above, and photos on this page are kindly provided by the official Calico Ghost Town web site.

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN ORANGE COUNTY:

Knott's Berry Farm
8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

This is the nation's oldest theme park. It includes 165 attractions in multiple themed areas such as Calico Ghost Town, Mexican Village, Indian Trails, The Boardwalk and Camp Snoopy. (714) 220-5200


Hard Rock Cafe
451 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach

One in a chain of 104 Hard Rock Cafes around the world. You are paying for the honor of sitting under the autographs of rock stars. The highlight of the decor is the garish suit worn by Prince in the film "Purple Rain." (714) 640-8844


Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament
7662 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

Watch "knights" engage in jousting and other forms of mortal combat while you eat dinner. Paper crowns (a la Burger King) included. (714) 521-4740


Movieland Wax Museum
7711 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

An elaborate collection of movie and TV memorabilia, including authentic costumes and sets and more than 200 lifelike replicas of famous stars. Open Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission $6.95-$12.95. (949) 522-1154 or visit Movieland Wax Museum online.


Rainforest Cafe
3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa (In the Sears wing of South Coast Plaza)

A themed restaurant with a jungle motif. Includes animatronic creatures, indoor thundershowers, live parrots, talking trees and a large saltwater aquarium. (714) 424-9200


Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum
7850 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

"The odd, the unusual and bizarre from nature and man." Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission $5.25-$8.95. (714) 522-7045 or visit Ripley's online.


Wild Bill's Wild West Dinner Extravaganza
7600 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

Watch dancing Indians, lariat-twirling "cowboys" and singing cowgirls while you eat dinner. (714) 522-6414


Wild Rivers Water Park
8770 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine

A water theme park with over 40 water rides and attractions, on the site of the late lamented Lion Country Safari. (949) 768-9453


Intrigued by this abbreviated list? Click here to visit Douglas's more complete list of significant locations in Anaheim, including including HISTORICAL SITES, MUSEUMS, SEASIDE ATTRACTIONS, GARDENS, SHOPPING, JUST FOR KIDS, and MISCELLANEOUS FUN categories.

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